4160223895The closing date for public comments concerning the application of Duddingston House Properties to convert Edinburgh’s old Royal High School into a hotel is today, Tue 6th Oct (and next Tuesday 13th just to add confusion!).

The significance of this category A listed national monument can hardly be overstated with its magnificent setting at the foot of Calton Hill, affording one of the finest inner city views in the World looking out to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags.

Described as a masterpiece of Greek revival architecture, Historic Scotland regard the building as having “cemented Edinburgh’s reputation as the Athens of the North”.

Yet having once been considered an appropriate home for the Scottish Parliament the building has been underused for many years and has now suffered from serious neglect and deterioration under the ‘care’ of Edinburgh Council, which while advancing the case for disposal actually suggests that the Council has lost credibility in managing public assets.

The Edinburgh Civic Trust, the Cockburn Association, consider that a hotel is not an appropriate use for this civic asset stating that,

“as an exemplary work of art, the design and purpose of the High School should be seen in its cultural context. After the reformation, the intention was to make knowledge accessible across Scotland, through establishing schools in every parish. From an enlightened nineteenth century perspective the meritocratic intent of this institution, embodied as a work of art, sows early seeds for an egalitarian society. Edinburgh’s High School building, as a temple to learning, is the architectural pinnacle of this enlightened policy”.

An alternative proposal is being pursued by the Royal High School Preservation Trust which would restore the building to its original purpose by integrating St Mary’s Music School which is currently seeking to relocate. However, a representative for Edinburgh City Council has stated that the “old Royal High School is not on the market as the Council has a legal agreement with Duddingston House Properties to lease it. The site is now subject to a planning application for a hotel, which has been submitted to the Council and will be considered in due course.”

The fate of the Royal High School has been decided by EDI, the arms length Edinburgh Council economic ‘development’ body, promoting the disposal and redevelopment of significant public assets under a scheme known as the Edinburgh 12 ‘initiative’ which includes St James Centre, Quartermile, Kings Stable Road and India Buildings.

Each of these proposed ‘developments’ have typically attracted controversy, the most infamous to date being ‘Caltongate/ New Waverley’ which involved the closed door sell off of public assets, including Council housing on the Royal Mile, Common Good property and Jeffrey St arches, which were disposed by way of a 125 year lease “on a peppercorn rent”; hardy a recommendation for having secured ‘best value’, as policy stipulates. See: www.sootspace.blogspot.co.uk/

439218207In the face of considerable opposition to Caltongate/ New Waverley, this particular protracted debacle, which has done much to undermine the wellbeing of the local Old Town community, now in serious decline, concluded with the granting of planning permission, including demolition consent of listed buildings. Rather than enhance the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Status as required, the ‘development’ attracted scrutiny from UNESCO which led to a visit in 2009 by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the conservation watchdog that advises Unesco.

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the ‘golden turd’ redevelopment of St James Centre (See: Rosemary Goring Herald article – A Capital Crime), and now the audacious proposed fate of the old Royal High School, the City has courted yet another visit by ICOMOS, putting the twin World Heritage Status ever more at risk.

Reflecting on the broader context as a consequence of recent scandals and revelations of mismanagement (toy town trams costing upwards of £1 billion, statutory notices etc), Edinburgh Council has ratcheted up a staggering debt of billions which is said to be costing tax payers £100+ million/year just to service, as revealed by Council Leader Andrew Burns in a blog post of 2011.

If these figures are correct, and indeed four years on likely to be worse, in the context of the current global financial chicanery and the knock on effects of cuts to local public services (£67 million over the next three years), the so called ‘austerity’ measures would appear to actually count for little, thereby seeming to precipitate the sell off of valuable public assets.

There will be some who might speculate that the ill fated tram project, not unlike the vast sums of public money extracted in the construction of the Scottish Parliament or the new Forth Bridge, was a deliberate attempt to saddle the Council with considerable debt, thus weakening the wellbeing of the Capital and leaving the City open to predatory asset stripping.

In favouring short sighted, unsustainable and discredited economic considerations above the long term wellbeing of the City and her Citizens this burden of debt is evidently perverting the integrity of public servants, as laid out in The Seven Principles of Public Life by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (The Nolan Report) which states in Principle 1 that:

“Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest”.

Quite how the disposal of among the most significant public property in the City to private, commercial interests can be deemed to be acting “solely in terms of the public interest” is highly contentious. Indeed, for the old Royal High School to be included on the inauspicious Edinburgh 12 list, regardless of the quality of design for the proposed hotel, reveals just how apparently craven and desperate the Council have become.

Though Duddingston House Properties claim to have won a supposedly “open” competition in 2010 which granted a conditional ground lease for 125 years there appears to be no evidence online of such a competition. Indeed for many the first the general public knew of the proposals for the Royal High School came with the submission of a Proposal of Application Notice by the ‘developer’ earlier this year, followed by “three days of public consultation”.

For those with any experience of such ‘developer’ led “public consultations” this process typically reveals itself to be an utterly disingenuous box ticking exercise in which the ‘development’ is effectively a ‘done deal’.

Under the circumstances, for a Council with a grain of integrity a building of such national importance as the old Royal High School would surely merit a full independent public consultation? Yet in spite of the Scottish Government recently passing the Community Empowerment Bill it would seem that no meaningful public consultations have been undertaken as to alternative uses for any of the eminent buildings included on the Edinburgh 12 list.

In spite of the controversy and public outcry the Scottish Government has thus far declined to intervene though the properties listed in the Edinburgh 12 could all be regarded worthy of national significance. However, the Scottish Government’s track record in listening to and favouring community interests is itself questionable, in spite of pronouncements invoking the Sovereignty of the People, given the presumption in favour of ‘development’ and a planning system heavily biased in favour of commercial interests where communities, unlike ‘developers’, have no rights of appeal, in spite of repeated calls from the public for radical planning reform.

Moreover, the Scottish Government is evidently more successfully lobbied and influenced by private speculative interests, as revealed for instance in the almost fantastical figures projected for house building that envisions the construction of 450,000 new houses (most likely made of ‘ticky-tack’, in spite of supposedly being of the highest standards as proclaimed by the construction industry), to be built across Scotland by 2034, fundamentally threatening priceless Greenbelt, prime agricultural land and the wellbeing of future generations condemned to a sterile concrete jungle in order to satiate the broken and unsustainable economic model of endless economic growth on a finite planet…

Though seemingly dull and marred in reams of bureaucratic obfuscation, thereby disenfranchising many citizens, the issue of planning and development could be said to have fundamentally played no small part in effecting the outcome of last year’s referendum given the controversial intervention of the Scottish Government in the Donald Trump Menie Estate affair a few years prior. Somewhat poignantly analogous with the classic Scottish film Local Hero, this well publicised debacle arguably did more to damaged the trust and reputation of ex-First Minister Alex Salmond, and by extension the independence cause, than any other incident leading up to the referendum.

In concluding, the proposed hotel plans for the old Royal High School are opposed by numerous notable groups including Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. However, going on the evidence of other recent planning decisions in which the Council has blatantly affronted local democracy as well as ignoring policy guidelines, the public can have little faith in the current process, particularly when the Council has a vested financial interest and is currently on its knees and legally bound to a private ‘developer’.

Besides the controversy hanging over the ‘golden turd’ and the proposed wallpaper limestone cladding of the new St James Centre the case of Craighouse, regarded as “possibly the highest ever level of public engagement in a planning application in Scottish history”, reveals the extent to which the Council have become deaf to overwhelming cries of objection. See: www.friendsofcraighouse.com/)

So short of some spirited action befitting this City of Enlightenment, the speculative, architectural wallpaper creep of the Nation’s beloved capital will continue apace, and the Royal High School will become just another pound of flesh to add to the catalogue of Edinburgh’s disgraces…

For those citizens of The World with faith left in the current system and with a few moments to spare, representations to the Council are permissible from all peoples, living in Edina and beyond, so Mel Gibson and the Braveheart diaspora if you’re reading…
See: Facebook link or for those not on Facebook see the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland here.

The deadline has been extended to October 13th (though comments on the Listed Building Consent of the application (15/03990/LBC) close October 6th).

If objecting you need to explicitly use the words ‘I OBJECT’. You might like to concur with Historic Scotland by quoting their cool headed, no-nonsense, jargon busting reasons for objection, but do vent your spleen too:

Adverse impact on the Hamilton building, and views to and from it.
Height, scale and massing of extensions would overwhelm the former school and diminish its architectural status.
Adverse impact on the designed landscape of Calton Hill, and on other buildings and monuments on it.
Adverse impact on the Old and New Towns of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

If for any reason you are unable to access the Council website, you can send an email to the case officers Euan McMeeken and Carla Parkes directly, referring to the reference numbers 15/03989/FUL and 15/03990/LBC.

Please share with others and also consider, particularly if you miss the officious Council deadline, of writing to MSPs Alex Neil and Fiona Hyslop asking them to ‘call in’ the application. In light of the considerable ongoing controversy surrounding land grabbing and speculative ‘development’ and the threat to the World Heritage Status you might also ask Ministers to undertake an independent investigation of Edinburgh Council’s Planning Department and EDI.

And finally, a petition was established to register an expression of “No Confidence in the City of Edinburgh Planning Department” in response to the Caltongate/ New Waverley decision and other subsequent contentious ‘developments’ of national importance. This petition has reached 5000+ signatures and is still live in order to canvas more support and raise greater awareness.

Add your support at 38 Degrees here.